The importance of activism and social justice in STEM

Hello everyone!

In today’s post, I would like to talk about the importance of activism and social awareness in STEM. This is a topic I’ve wanted to discuss for quite some time. I feel grateful to have the space and privilege to speak on a platform that allows me to do so.

Disclosure: these opinions are my own or are opinions of others, and these opinions are not affiliated with any institution.

A little bit of backstory:

Throughout middle and high school, I was often teased for being the way that I was. My family and I did not have much growing up. That meant I went several lunches without meals, I wore the same clothing everyday of the school week, and I did not have most of what the other kids had. I got a lot of questions like: “Don’t you have money to pay for lunch?”, “Why doesn’t your mom just buy that?”, “How come you always were those ugly clothes?”, etc. It ate at me mentally and I was often really sad because I felt that no one understood where I was coming from-- I felt like the oddball-out. I thought I did not have anyone on my side, so I kept to myself and I tried to just survive.

This experience is not uncommon. Many underserved, underrepresented, and disadvantaged students who are in or interested in STEM may feel this way too-- like the oddball-out (of course each experience is unique and different to each person). For myself, I felt as though I did not have anyone to talk to about what I wanted to pursue in terms of career; nevertheless, to pursue a career in STEM. I am also a first-generation college student, so my mom had no idea of how to get accepted into colleges or how to pay for college. When I was applying to transfer schools from community college into a four-year university, my mom timidly asked, “How are we going to pay for that?” My mom and I definitely struggled, especially financially, and I felt like there was not an authority figure or professor who stood up for individuals like me. I thought that I did not have anyone to talk to with similar experiences and struggles. However, when I transferred to SFSU I felt as though I found like-minded individuals, professors too, who understood my struggle and where I was coming from.

I think it is really important, and I cannot stress how important this is to me, to perpetuate this idea of activism and social awareness in STEM. Coming from a disadvantaged background, I felt very alone and there were many days where I wanted to give up on pursuing a career in STEM. I think it is important for others (i.e. educators, science communicators, professionals, anyone really) to recognize struggle and make it a point to prioritize those students/individuals who identify coming from under-served, under-represented, and disadvantaged backgrounds.

I have interviewed an awesome, extremely inspirational science communicator/trailblazer, Dr. Monica Feliu-Mojer on what she thinks about the importance of activism and social awareness in STEM.

  1. What are you most passionate about in the field of STEM and science communication?

What I am most passionate about is how science communication and storytelling can make STEM fields more inclusive. A significant part of my work is focused on empowering scientists from underrepresented backgrounds through telling stories that flip narratives about the value of diversity in STEM (like the series Background to Breakthrough) or by providing science communication training to help them become more effective communicators and think about how they can embrace their multiple identities to step into the power of their stories.

  1. Why is change, in regard to STEM, so important to you?

For a long time, STEM fields, like many other parts of society, have marginalized certain groups of people, which affects innovation and who benefits from it. Changing the face of STEM, and who tells the stories of STEM, is critical if we want everyone to have the opportunity to contribute and benefit from the knowledge and solutions STEM creates.

  1. In your opinion, how can we as scientists change the way science is handled so that it becomes (or remains) inclusive?

We can all take small actions to make science more inclusive. For example, we can create awareness and dialogue with our colleagues about the lack of diversity, equity and inclusion in science. We can be mindful of our privileges and think about how we can use them to promote an inclusive environment for everyone. Listen to underrepresented voices, ask how you can be an ally and use whatever privileges you have. For example, I am a female Latinx scientist, but I benefit from white privilege because people often think I am white until I open my mouth, and I am very aware that that is a privilege I can use.

  1. How can we integrate activism and justice in STEM?

My biggest piece of advice is to do what you can with what you have. Think about how you can contribute from where you stand, right now. We can use our STEM skills and use them to help the communities we care about. For example, a lot of my work is focused on using my scientific skills to serve Puerto Rico. We can apply a STEM lens to social justice problems, like the water crisis in Flint, MI. We can use our STEM skills and platforms to advocate for issues we care about. There are multiple ways to integrate activism and justice in STEM.

There you have it everyone! After my interview with Dr. Feliu-Mojer, I definitely feel excited and inspired about where we are headed in regard to integrating activism and social awareness in our niche fields in STEM. I hope we can start having conversations about activism and social awareness in STEM, and that we can start to seek out individuals who are incredibly insightful and passionate about STEM, activism and awareness.

Best of luck,

Coohleen